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A sign language interpreter signs during a commencement ceremony.

Passion for Access

Kristi Pearson, interpreter/transcriber for Student Disability Services

Kristi Pearson, interpreter/transcriber for Student Disability Services

by Kristi Pearson, interpreter/transcriber for Student Disability Services

Who could have guessed a simple ABC book in American Sign Language (ASL) would have ignited such a spark that would alter my life? Growing up with this budding interest and being exposed to ASL interpreters through theater performances, and when I saw that my high school offered ASL as a language course, the choice was obvious. There were some concerns, though, because at the time very few colleges and universities accepted ASL as a foreign language credit despite being recognized as a language consisting of unique grammar and syntax. It was in those classes that I fell in love with not only the language but the people and the culture it came from. I chose to continue down this path by pursuing my degree in ASL Interpreting and Deaf Studies from Maryville College. There, I was able to experience the breadth of the interpreting field. I learned about all the different settings related to interpreting and two stood out: performance and educational interpreting. 

Interpreting in higher education settings has always felt like where I belong. Knowing that I would be providing equal access for young minds to the knowledge they deserve to better their future is incredibly rewarding. Not to mention, being a lifelong learner, I get to challenge myself and learn new things every day working in the classroom. One of the major challenges is that on any given day my work finds my coworkers and me bouncing from a general education literature class to a doctorate engineering lab and then back into a 400-level history course. Another perk of working for Student Disability Services at the University of Tennessee is the opportunity to express my love of the performing arts through the extra assignment requests we cover. 

Over my time at UT, I have had the privilege of interpreting concerts that run the gambit, from Alice Cooper to Garth Brooks to the Foo Fighters; and let’s not forget the infamous Korn concert that resulted in my instant TikTok stardom after a video of me interpreting went viral. Out of all the comments, one appeared time and time again. “Why would someone who is deaf go to a concert?” As a hearing interpreter, I won’t begin to speculate or describe the deaf experience; so I answer that question with another. “Why does anyone go to a concert?” People go to concerts for the experience. Being in an arena with 20,000 fans screaming the lyrics, feeling the drum solo rattle your chest, watching the sea of lighters and cell phones sway, and just feeling the electricity and excitement coursing through your body is energizing; and being able to provide full access to that experience is why I love what I do. It’s not always a guarantee that we will be called in for these concerts though, but when a deaf person requests access, my theater kid heart skips a beat, and I am one of the first to sign up.